Given its volatile price swings, bitcoin might not be an ideal investment for retirement. Yet some financial services firms now offer the option of investing in the cryptocurrency through self-directed Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). Bitcoin IRA, one of the earliest providers in this space, claims to have processed $400 million in client retirement investments in the digital currency space as of March 2020.

Below, we'll look at some of the pros and cons of investing in a Bitcoin IRA. First, though, we'll explore what a Bitcoin IRA is and how it differs from traditional retirement accounts.

Key Takeaways

  • A Bitcoin IRA is an IRA with bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies in its portfolio.
  • To the IRS, bitcoins are considered and are taxed as property.
  • A few advantages of bitcoins are that they diversify portfolios are expected to grow in popularity and availability, as well as investors may be able to enjoy favorable tax treatment.
  • A few disadvantages include hefty fees, extreme volatility, and limited global use in business.

What Are Bitcoin IRAs?

There is not a specific Internal Revenue Service (IRS) account designed for cryptocurrencies. Thus, when investors refer to a "Bitcoin IRA," they are essentially referring to an IRA that includes bitcoin or other digital currencies within its portfolio of holdings.

Since 2014, the IRS has considered bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in retirement accounts as property, meaning coins are taxed in the same fashion as stocks and bonds. IRA holders looking to include digital tokens in their retirement accounts must enlist the help of a custodian.

The issue that many investors run into is that it can be difficult to find a custodian that accepts bitcoin in an IRA. Fortunately for those individuals committed to including bitcoin in their IRAs, self-directed IRAs (SDIRAs) more frequently allow for alternative assets like cryptocurrencies.

Recently, custodians and other companies designed to help investors include bitcoin in their IRAs have become increasingly popular. Some of these companies include BitIRA, Equity Trust, and Bitcoin IRA, one of the early leaders in the field.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Bitcoin IRAs

Advantages

Individuals may find that including bitcoin or altcoin holdings may add diversification to retirement portfolios. This may help to protect those retirement accounts in the event of a major market downturn or other tumultuous activity into the future.

Perhaps more than diversification, investors inclined to add bitcoin holdings to their IRAs likely believe that cryptocurrencies will continue to grow in popularity and accessibility into the future. With their long-term outlook, IRAs are an excellent vehicle for investments that hold major potential on the scale of decades. Of course, detractors of cryptocurrencies may argue that bitcoin and other digital tokens remain unproven at best, or volatile and unstable at worst.

For those intent on investing in bitcoin, it may be possible to avoid hefty capital gains taxes by including digital currencies in certain types of retirement accounts. However, there are other fees to consider as well, as we'll see below.

Disadvantages

Bitcoin's extreme volatility in recent years makes it a tough sell as a retirement investment for many. The leading cryptocurrency routinely experiences significant price fluctuations; following a record price of over $16,000 per bitcoin in December 2017, the price plummeted. Bitcoin recovered somewhat in 2019, but as of June 2020, it remains priced at almost half of that record value.

Worse, pessimists would likely argue that the hype surrounding bitcoin and digital currencies as a revolutionary new form of currency has so far proven to be dramatically exaggerated. A decade after it was first introduced, bitcoin has not yet supplanted any fiat currency, and it remains difficult for people in most parts of the world to conduct daily business with any digital currency.

Another key disadvantage of including bitcoin in an IRA is the fees. Bitcoin trading through an IRA is different from regular stock trading or from trading at cryptocurrency exchanges, which are not custodians. The potential tax benefits of trading bitcoin through a self-directed IRA account come with their own set of challenges. The most important of these is the expense of added fees and risk. Because firms offering self-directed IRA services are not bound by broker fiduciary duties, investors are on the hook if they do not assess risks associated with crypto markets. 

Fees for bitcoin trading take on various forms during the investment process, from initial setup fees to custody and trading fees to annual maintenance fees. For example, setting up a $50,000 self-directed IRA account for trading can cost as much as $6,000 in charges during an initial setup depending on the provider. There are also recurring custody and maintenance fees charged by providers of such services.

Finally, each cryptocurrency trade also incurs its own set of fees from the service provider’s trading partner and custodian. A typical provider may charge 3.5% per transaction for each purchase and 1% or a flat fee for each sale. Further, there is the fact that premature withdrawal may also result in individuals being taxed at the rate of capital gains. Cumulatively, those fees could negate the tax advantages offered by IRA accounts.

Special Considerations

Bitcoin’s unique requirements, such as security and custody, have bumped-up fees for services offered through IRA accounts. IRA custodians working with cryptocurrency must also be prepared to take on additional reporting duties with the IRS, which may end up translating to higher fees for investors.

Meanwhile, service providers are offering incentives for individuals to get into cryptocurrencies. Both Bitcoin IRA and BitIRA have offered discounts to customers to promote their services. Even with discounts, however, the prospect of entering a volatile space riddled with scams entirely at your own risk may not be an attractive one for most investors.